19 Aug 2008

Technologists Re-Learning Manual Skills

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The Sunday Times Business section this week described an interesting reverse development taking place at high tech environments like Adobe, Intel, Stanford, and M.I.T.: a return to hand-ons, build-it-yourself engineering training featuring physical tools inculcating manual skills.

At Stanford, the rediscovery of human hands arose partly from the frustration of engineering, architecture and design professors who realized that their best students had never taken apart a bicycle or built a model airplane. For much the same reason, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology offers a class, “How to Make (Almost) Anything,” which emphasizes learning to use physical tools effectively.

“Students are desperate for hands-on experience,” says Neil Gershenfeld, who teaches the course.

Paradoxically, yearnings to pick up a hammer — or an oscilloscope — may deepen even as young people immerse themselves in simulated worlds. “People spend so much time in digital worlds that it creates an appetite for the physical world,” says Dale Dougherty, an executive at O’Reilly Media, which is based in Sebastopol, Calif., He manages a magazine, Make, that is devoted to building digital-era gear.

Fifty years ago, tinkering with gadgets was routine for people drawn to engineering and invention. When personal computers became widespread starting in the 1980s, “we tended to forget the importance of physical senses,” says Richard Sennett, a sociologist at the London School of Economics.

Making refinements with your own hands — rather than automatically, as often happens with a computer — means “you have to be extremely self-critical,” says Mr. Sennett, whose book “The Craftsman” (Yale University Press, 2008), examines the importance of “skilled manual labor,” which he believes includes computer programming.

Even in highly abstract fields, like the design of next-generation electronic circuits, some people believe that hands-on experiences can enhance creativity. “You need your hands to verify experimentally a technology that doesn’t exist,” says Mario Paniccia, director of Intel’s photonics technology lab in Santa Clara, Calif. Building optical switches in silicon materials, for example, requires engineers to test the experimental switches themselves, and to build test equipment, too.

This sort of thing would make all the difference in the Humanities and Social Studies, too, where only too many people, trained only in the manipulation of words, symbols, and ideas, inevitably come to repose infinite confidence in the calculative powers of human reason and the decisions of the State to do more or less anything, including changing fundamental aspects of the human condition. Al Gore obviously believes that we can pass a few laws, add some taxes, regulations, and subsidies and magically economically viable new technologies will promptly spring into being, allowing us to change completely the carbon-based cycle of energy production not only underlying the human economy from the time of the discovery of fire and the domestication of livestock onward, but underlying all life on earth (with the exception of a few bacteria). Barack Obama expects to be able to control the levels of the oceans. You can see that neither of those guys ever built anything complicated and mechanical.

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